We’ve all had this thought throughout the pandemic: ‘Are all the lockdowns and restrictions actually good for the environment?’ After all, we’ve seen huge reductions in travel, leaving what are normally busy motorways eerily empty during rush hour. Some of these changes may be temporary, as when the pandemic is but a distant memory, no one expects these roads to remain like a scene from a post-apocalyptic horror film. However, as businesses and workers have been forced to embrace virtual communication, it’s likely that flying halfway around the globe for a two-hour meeting will remain a thing of the past.
But this silver lining may not be so silver, because as we all marvelled at the (disappointingly fake) stories of dolphins and swans in the canals of Venice, a new environmental villain was sneaking in the back door. That villain, is the disposable mask.
We humans are simple creatures, capable of reacting to only one threat at a time. As a result, we have seen disposable masks for what they are in one light, which is protection against a deadly virus. However, we’ve missed their dual identity as an environmental catastrophe. We have used and disposed of them recklessly, because we’re glad to be protected from COVID-19 first and foremost. However, like any bad habit that has been developing in the background, it’s time we talked about disposable masks.
In September 2020, it was estimated that 1.6 billion disposable face masks were being sent to landfill every single month in the UK alone. That’s around 53 million a day. Or 2 million an hour. I can personally attest to the logic of this, as my mum is a care worker who visits people’s homes every day and she has to dispose of her mask after each visit and then use a new one for the next visit. That often means that she uses ten or more masks a day.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a sign of a population of people who are making changes to their normal life on a daily basis in order to save lives. It’s truly heartening. It’s just the sad truth that this responsible reaction that keeps humans safe, is at the cost of the environment and the wonderfully diverse animals that live within it.
Dealing with Debris
With such a global use of disposable face masks, it’s no wonder that they, along with other COVID-common items such as plastic gloves and hand sanitiser bottles, have become a normal sight everywhere from car parks and alleyways to rivers and beaches. There’s been plenty of reports of animals getting caught in them and increasing fears that autopsies of marine life will inevitably reveal bellies full of blue-tinted polypropylene.
Face masks are not likely to be here one minute and gone the next. Not only is COVID-19 sticking around like a bad smell, but a lot of experts suggest that masks will likely remain a fairly common sight even after the pandemic recedes into the pages of history books. This means we need to find a better option than single-use plastic face masks, otherwise they will join plastic bottles as the items that are pushing us towards having more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
What can You do?
There are alternatives available, with varying degrees of efficacy. Do your research on alternative, reusable masks. If you decide you can’t move away from disposable face masks, then there’s one simple thing you can do to minimise the damage. It can make a huge difference to an animal that could otherwise get tangled and not be able to get out.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), among many other prominent voices, have urged people to simply cut the strings of face masks before disposing of them.
by Zachary Reeve
Zachary is an English literature graduate who loves writing, reading, watching films and learning about all things language. More than anything, he is dedicated to protecting the environment and preserving biodiversity.
Zachary writes The Blog Thickens https://theblogthickens.com
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